I’ve recently had a couple of emails from readers asking for help in identifying what their cameos are made from, so it’s given me an idea to do some blog posts on the different type of cameo available.
Let’s start with the cheapest type of cameo – one’s made from plastic resin. Generally costing between £2 and £15, they are perfect for everyday wear, and many are beautifully detailed.
Tips to identify:
Plastic cameos tend to feel slightly dense and heavy, and make a dull sound when gently tapped on the teeth.
Hold a piece of shell or smooth glass/ pebble in your hand – it’s feels cold. Now, hold a plastic cameo – it will feel warmer and softer in comparison (this is a great tip for identifying plastic beads too).
Stand in front of a window, and with the front of the cameo facing the window (so you are looking at the back of it), a hold a plastic cameo up to the light – it’ll be quite dense and opaque, where as shell cameos would still be detailed and quite transparent.
Here are some pictures of plastic cameos I’ve had, with further identification details:
If you want sparkle, but prefer an understated look, then marcasite gemstone jewellery may be perfect for you. These semi-precious stones are a type of mineral, which range in colour from silver-yellow to bright white silver. When faceted and set into jewellery, they create a subtle sparkling effect, rather than a full on glitz – perfect for adding a hint of shimmer.
I love sparkles and crystals and all things glamorous, but often I just want to wear cute things too. In my shop, there’s a growing range of adorable animal, insect and bird costume jewellery and I’ve got a real soft spot for it! 🙂
Some people test is to rub it very lightly and feather-soft gently on an unglazed tile – it will leave a green streak. HOWEVER, this will damage the malachite (especially if it’s polished – it will leave a permanent damage mark) so I don’t recommend it under any circumstances. Malachite is very heavy (heavier than glass), and ice cold – it takes a long time to warm up when held in your hand. More info on Malachite identity here.
I’m looking for old duplicate jewelry for drama stuff ..
Best bet is probably good old Ebay. Search for the term ‘job lot of vintage jewellery’ (or job lot of necklaces/ bracelets etc), also use key words such as ‘old’, ‘junk’, ‘pile of’ if the term ‘job lot’ isn’t yielding decent results.
Looking for beginners info on Victorian antique jewellery – help!
Check out this article here, which includes a bit on identifying brooch clasps to their historical period – hope this helps 🙂
Info on a 10k gold bracelet with a crown symbol?
I’d have to see a good quality close up photo of the stamp, but right now, I haven’t a clue! Anyone any ideas?
How to test amber?
It’s tricky, especially if the stone is set in metal and not loose. Two quick tips – amber is warm and soft, and feels quite plastic-like (which unfortunately means there are lots of plastic fakes around); it’s not cold and not hard like glass or other gemstones. Check out more amber ID info here.
What is the meaning of ‘gold tone’ jewelry?
It usually means that the item is not solid gold – it’s non-precious metal which is gold in colour, or gold plated. Check out this article here.
Any cameo testing jewellery tips?
Check out this article here – the testing tips are a bit further down.
Do you have a jewellery query which you can’t find answers to? While I’m not a professional expert, I have collected many types of jewellery (modern, antique and vintage), gemstones (and costume) for over 20 years, so even if I don’t know the answer to your query, I can hopefully point you in the right direction.
Nearly every country has its own systems regarding precious metals. In the UK and many parts of Europe we have detailed hallmarking systems. In other countries (for example the USA) no such systems exists, and a simple ’14K’ or ’18K’ stamp is the norm. This article is a quick-glance new buyers guide to jewellery in the British system only. For further information on hallmarking please contact your local Trading Standards, auctioneers or Assay Office. Please note this guide doesn’t cover bullion or high purity coins or gold objects, just jewellery.
British hallmarks – the basics
In the United Kingdom we have a system of protection when buying gold, silver, platinum or palladium jewellery called hallmarking. This means that in general, any precious metal to be sold in the UK must be stamped with a series of tiny ‘hallmarks’ somewhere on the item. It is one of the oldest laws in the world regarding consumer protection, dating back to the 14th Century. Hallmarks tell you who made the piece, which Assay Office it was tested at, what purity the metal is (eg – 375/ 9ct gold) and usually what year it was made in (will be represented by an alphabet letter).
Generally speaking, a simple 9k…..375…..14k…..585…..18k…..or 750 stamp on its own is not a legal hallmark in the United Kingdom on modern gold jewellery (unless the gold jewellery is under 1g, which doesn’t need to be hallmarked). Always ask a seller about its full UK hallmarks (or equivalent if outside the UK) for your own protection. Also, 8k…10k… 21k stamps are not legally recognized in the United Kingdom, and it is against the law to sell jewellery as ‘gold’ with 8k, 10k or 21k stamps (instead it’s called yellow or white metal, depending on the colour).
Purities of precious metals GOLD: In the UK gold comes in four legal purities for jewellery: ..9ct (375 parts gold to 1000 parts alloy)….14ct (585 parts gold)…..18ct (750parts gold)……22ct (916 parts gold). All modern gold jewelry over 1 gram must be properly hallmarked by an Assay Office. Occasionally you may see ‘990’ as part of the hallmark; this is also recognized finesse amount, though is rarely used for jewellery, and must be accompanied by the normal Assay Office hallmarks. Any gold jewellery stamped ’10k’ is not legally recognized in the UK.
SILVER: In the UK, silver comes in three legal purities used for jewellery….Britannia (958 parts silver to 1000 parts alloy)……Sterling (925 parts silver to 1000 alloy)…. and 800 (800 parts silver to 1000 parts alloy). All silver over 7.78 grams must be properly fully hallmarked by an Assay Office. Silver under 7.78g doesn’t need to be hallmarked, and may have a simple stamp (eg, ‘925’).
PLATINUM: In the UK, platinum comes in three legal purities used for jewellery:…950….900….850. All platinum over 0.5 grams must be properly hallmarked by an Assay Office.
PALLADIUM: In the UK, palladium comes in two legal purities used for jewellery…..500….950. All palladium over 1 gram must be properly hallmarked by an Assay Office.
ABOVE: A well detailed set of Sterling silver British hallmarks on a silver pendant. From the top; the makers initials, below this is a leopards head (meaning it was tested/ assayed in London), then below is the Lion Passant (meaning the item is 925 Sterling Silver), then the italic letter ‘C’, meaning the year it was made was 1977, and finally a special mark bearing the Queen’s head; 1977 was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, so Assay Office’s created a special stamp to celebrate this.
Always try to confirm with any jewellery business, jewellers or pawnbrokers (both real world and internet) that the gold you wish to purchase is fully British hallmarked.Avoid sellers who refuse to do this, or claim a UK hallmark isn’t necessary (unless the gold is under 1 gram). Also avoid shops that claim 10K gold is legally recognized in the UK – it isn’t, and if you decide to sell your 10K stamped jewellery item at a later date you will legally have to describe as either white or yellow metal, not gold. You’d be surprised how many sellers and shops don’t know or care about hallmarking law, and will tell you anything so they can simply sell the item. This goes for for both ‘real life’ shops and internet shops.
ABOVE: This 9ct gold ring has hallmarks to the back of the band, on its underside. Hallmarks will often be seen as tiny dark squares to the naked eye, like in this photo.
ABOVE: A simple ‘number’ stamp like this is not a legally recognized hallmark in the United Kingdom, with the exception of a proven antique. This is a big area of fake gold jewellery, with sellers claiming a stamp like this on their modern gold jewellery is a hallmark – it isn’t.
A note about 12ct gold and 15ct gold jewellery There used to be other recognized purities of gold on old vintage jewellery, namely 12ct and 15ct gold. In 1932 12ct and 15ct gold was replaced by a new 14ct gold purity. As long as 12ct or 15ct jewellery are stamped on pre-1932 jewellery the hallmarked is legal. It is not legal on post 1932 jewellery.
Also, if you come across an item of gold jewellery which is stamped ’12ct‘ or ’12k’ you need to check if there is are any initials nearby that look like ‘RG’ or ‘GF‘. This means the jewellery is actually Rolled Gold or Gold Filled, which are both a type of gold platingand not solid gold. Again, ask the seller to photograph or list all the hallmarks if necessary.
Now it gets complicated! Antique jewellery made from precious metals
The hallmarking rules for old vintage and antique jewellery can be quite different to modern precious metal jewellery, and hallmarks are possibly not always needed if it is a provenantique or made before a certain date. I strongly recommend that you seek the advise of a professional jeweller, dealer or auction house if you believe you have a valuable un-hallmarked item of jewellery and they can help you further.
Many antique gold or antique silver items for sale by dealers are offered as un-hallmarked ‘acid tested’. This ‘acid test’ is often poorly carried out and can badly damage jewellery, lowering the value of a piece. Also, antique jewellery was often very heavily gold plated, meaning the many acid tests won’t be able to give reliable results anyway. If a seller has acid tested a piece then have a friendly chat to them as to how and why they’ve come to the conclusion the item is antique to begin with. Nicely ask them to photograph the area it was tested (to see the possible damage), and finally make sure they offer a full money back guarantee if the jewellery is not as described on further investigation. If the seller refuses any of these requests then simply avoid them. Genuine sellers are always happy to help any way they can, and will not take offense to questions if asked in a kind, genuinely enquiringlyand friendly manner.
The law on precious metals is called the UK Hallmarks Act 1973 (with amendments). Breaking this law it is a criminal offense, punishable with a heavy fine or even jail. If you believe a shop has broken this law you should contact your local trading standards office. Anyone who sells precious metals (including fine jewellery) must also have a Dealers Notice on display – these are prominently displayed posters which have hallmarking information on them.
This article is for general information purposes only, and not be be used for or as any kind of legal advise. While every attempt has been made to verify the information provided in this report, the author cannot assume any responsibility for errors, inaccuracies or omissions. If any type of advice is needed (legal or otherwise), the services of a fully qualified professional should always be sought, such as Trading Standards, a professional auctioneers or a UK Assay Office. This article is not intended for use as a source of advice.
Shopping around for black jewellery, you many come across a term called ‘French Jet’. While it sounds romantic or even like a gemstone in its own right, French Jet simply a fancy word for good old black glass.
It became popular during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) when black jewellery was very fashionable. Genuine Jet (which is a real gemstone, most famously found in the Whitby area on the east coast of England) was the most sought after material for making black Victorian jewellery, but due to demand and increasing scarcity it was became expensive. Black glass was a much cheaper alternative.
Where the actual name French Jet comes from is unclear. The glass beads and stones themselves were usually made in the great glass making countries of Europe, such as Austria and the Czechoslovakia regions, and then sent through to other countries (including England and France) to be made into jewellery.
Other black materials used in Victorian mourning jewellery are: onyx, Vulcanite (a type of early rubber), Gutta Percha, genuine real jet, and bog oak (ancient fossilized wood type material usually found in Ireland).
Quick glance identity to mourning jewellery materials:
Bog Oak = usually only seen in brooches. Look under a magnifying glass to see wood grain texture. Often depicts Irish scenes, castles and motifs.
Gutta Percha = rare, similar to Vulcanite except one important difference – the taste test. Be careful with this, as moisture can permanently stain old Gutta Percha. With a dry tip of the tongue, gently press your tongue on the jewellery. Gutta Percha tastes very salty!
Cameos have been treasured throughout the ages. They are made from hand carved shell, agate, marble, coral and precious gemstones, and even made from volcano lava.
Early Cameo History
It’s generally thought that cameos originated in the Middle Eastern regions over 2000 years ago. They wouldn’t have been used for the decorative purposes we love them for today – cameos were statement objects. They might depict the portrait of the King or Ruler of the time (therefore showing political allegiance of the wearer), or show a religious icon. Cameos were also used as amulets and charms to guard against evil spirits and promote good luck. The main materials used in the making of ancient cameos were precious gemstones and hard-stones such as marble and agates – shell cameos were considered inferior imitations only to be worn by the poor.
The Cameo Jewellery Golden Era
Although cameos have been esteemed throughout history (Queen Elizabeth I and Napoleon Bonaparte were famously both avid collectors), the heyday of cameo jewellery was between the 18th and 19th Century. They were loved in royal circles and the aristocracy around Europe, who at the time dictated the fashions trends of the time. This period was also the time of the famous Grand Tours, where the wealthy members of high society would travel extensively around Europe, soaking up new cultures. Italy was an especially popular destination due to its prestigious history in arts and culture. Most of the finest cameos came from there, and were often bought as souvenirs, or sent back home as a gift for loved ones.
Modern Cameo Jewellery
By the mid 20th Century the cameos’ popularity was ending. Though they were still being produced, the quality of the carving in many pieces became poor, with figures and portraits being much cruder than their life-like predecessors of the Georgian and Victorian period.
ABOVE: Two cameos. The left one dates from the 19th Century Victorian period, while the one on the right is from the 1960s. Note the difference in quality, with the older cameo benefiting from far superior carving.
The cameo is once again seeing a new lease of life. The 21st Century is bringing new state of the art techniques to the craft, such as laser and ultrasonic stone carvings; portraits of pets and loved ones are notable growing areas. These new cameo artisans use lasers to carve the stone while working from emailed photographs, to create a perfect likeness. It seems no matter what happens throughout history, the art of the cameo survives, adapts and flourishes.
How Cameos Are Made
Cameo carving is a highly skilled craft, which involves a long apprenticeship and a complete understanding of the materials being used. The basic theory behind both hard stone and shell carving is that the artist develops a deep knowledge of how best to cut and shape a material, so the different coloured layers of shell or stone can be carved and manipulated to their best advantage. For example, a piece of agate may have three layers of colour (eg brown at the bottom, white in the centre, and black at the top). The artisans use their knowledge to take advantage of the layers, leaving the brown as a flat base, the white above this is carved as the portrait, and the black above that is carved into hair. This gives the lifelike 3-D appearance of the fine cameos we see.
‘Fake’ or reproduciton cameos jewellery
As with all fine jewellery, you’ll always find fakes and costume jewellery copies. While most people are honest in describing their cameos, you will occasionally come across people trying to pass on costume jewellery copies as a real carved cameo.Reproduction cameos are made from plastic or glass. The most common plastic cameo depicts a side portrait of a young lady with her long hair tied in a ponytail – this is the cameo portrait you see in all the high street shops.
There are also some beautifully detailed plastic cameos depicting mythology on the market, usually dating from around the 1960s, which to a beginner may look real. Plastic cameos feel warm and slightly soft, not hard and ‘clinky’ like shell. The background can also give you clues – the colour is often a little too bright or pink in plastics. Tap a cameo gently on your front teeth if unsure – plastic cameos feel warm and make a slightly ‘dull’ thud sound, while shell and agate are hard, cold and make a lighter ‘clink’. Finally, you could always try a hot pin test (though this could damage the jewellery and its price, so it’s not recommended). Take a very hot sewing pin (hold it with pliers) and touch the cameo with it in an inconspicuous place. Most plastics will melt, while glass, agate or shell won’t.
ABOVE: Two good quality plastic cameo brooches. Note the unrealistic background colour on the left one, and the molded look of the right one.
Glass cameos tend to be either one uniform colour such as cream, black or turquoise, or two contrasting colours (eg black background and a glued on opaque white portrait). Glass is cold to touch (like stone), but the quality is not there. They often look quite molded with little true detail, and sometimes have dyed areas especially around the hair that imitate ‘dirt’. Glass and plastic cameos tend to be thicker and chunkier than agate, while shell cameos are very thin. Occasionally agate cameos can be ‘faked’, with a carved agate portrait being glued to a different agate background (this is called a cameo doublet). A good magnifying glass can help you spot this.
ABOVE: Glass cameos have been with us for many years. This one dates from the late 19th Century, and it imitates the very expensive angel-skin coral cameos that were around at that same time. Note the beige colour varnish glaze the glass has been given, to imitate dirt (angelskin coral cameos became dirty very quickly).
Collecting plastic or glass cameos is a fun hobby in its own right – many of them are beautiful to look at and are durable enough to worn everyday. The problem begins when people try to pass them on as real.
Cameo Themes, Valuation and Starting a Cameo Collection
Putting a value to cameos can be daunting if you’re new to the subject. Many factors have to be taken into account, including materials used (eg shell, volcanic lava or gemstones), quality of the carving, and if subject matter is rare or not. A big factor is also condition. Hold a shell cameo up to the light and you may see lines and cracks. This is not desirable, and any damage to a cameo can affect its value (unless the subject matter is rare or sought after).Some cameos are set into solid gold or silver, though confusingly if the carving quality of a gold set cameo is poor, then it’s often not worth as much as a highly detailed top quality carved cameo in plain base metal.
Most cameos are portraits. Right facing is most common, then left facing after that, and very occasionally you may see a forward facing portrait. Beautiful women are the most common subject, with male profiles being less available and more sought after. The rarest are blackamoors, and these are the most collectable (and expensive).
Mythological Cameos Cameos depicting scenes from Roman mythology were made up until the early 1900s, and are always highly sought after. Popular themes are:
1.The Three Graces ( three dancing women side by side)
2. Hebe and Zeus ( a swan swooping down from the sky towards a lady)
3. Diana the Moon Goddess ( has a moon crescent in her hair)
4. Bacchus the God of Wine/ Intoxication (has grapes in the hair)
5. Athena/ Minerva Goddess of Wisdom, Warriors and the Arts (female warrior with helmet)
6. Peace- Psyche & the Dove (beautiful woman with dove bird)
7. Poseidon/ Neptune (holds a pronged trident)
8. St George and the Dragon
9. Apollo (laurel wreath in his hair)
10. Venus and Cupid (Venus is always a beautiful lady, sometimes playing a harp and if you see a small winged cherub it’s Cupid).
ABOVE: A Victorian cameo depicting Hebe and Zeus (as an eagle). Note the fine quality carving of the brooch. Unfortunately, this one has a crack down one side, which in most cases severely affect the price. However, this cameo was quite special; it had a secret glass compartment at the back which could hold a keepsake – almost unheard of in cameo jewellery.
Other subjects in cameo jewellery.
Cameos of flowers are popular when beginning a collection as they can still be purchased quite cheaply. Occasionally you’ll find cameos depicting rural farm scenes, or animals such as horses. These were often private commissions, and can be highly detailed. Value depends on the theme and quality, and will usually in the same price region as the mythology cameos.
ABOVE: Two rural scene cameos. The one on the left is tiny (less than an inch), and dates from the Georgian period. The right one is from the 20th Century, and shows a cheeky peeping tom boy looking at a girl bathing in the river.
Nothing beats personal experience when it comes to learning how to date a cameo. Go to antiques fairs and vintage jewellery shops and handle as many as possible. Get a feel for them – look at the metal settings, quality of carving and subject matter. Some guidelines below may help:
1.Look at the clasp. This is always a good indication of age. ‘Roll over clasps’ are modern, and won’t really be seen on pre 1920s jewellery. A plain ‘c-clasp’ (ie the brooch pin loops under a c shaped piece of metal with no ‘roll over’ fitting) are a good indication of a possible old/ antique brooch.The pin is a giveaway too. Pre 1920s pins were set in a T-shape.
2.What is the subject? Mythology shell cameos usually date from the 18th Century to the very early 20th Century. Portraits can give hints of age too, and here I’m going to share with you a dealers secret! Look at the persons nose. A strong ‘Roman’ nose indicates pre 1860s. Straighter noses are Victorian, while tiny pert noses are contemporary 20th/ 21st Century. Chunky rounded ladies are generally Victorian in origin Cameos made from Whitby Jet or lava are usually Georgian or Victorian.
Modern vintage (ie after the 1930s) cameos are usually portraits of pretty young dainty ladies, with flowers on their hair. Some cameos wear necklaces which are set with sparking stones such as diamonds. These are known as habille cameos.
Modern laser cut agate cameos are easy to identify, having a vivid background colour (usualluy blue or pink) and white portrait . The portraits are incredibly detailed – often too detailed! Hair is let loose and swirly, and the whole cameo has a wispy, almost Art Nouveau dreamy feel. This type of cameo also can feel slightly ‘gritty’ when gently rubbed across your teeth, whereas the old agate cameos feel much smoother like glass.
Caring For Your Cameo Jewellery
Shell cameos need a little TLC once a year. Simply wash them gently in weak soapy water and dry thoroughly. Rub a little mineral oil all over front and back and leave to soak in for a couple of hours, after which you can wipe away all the access. By treating (called feeding) the cameo in this way once a year you are protecting it from drying out and cracking, preserving it for future generations to enjoy and admire.